Does your child with sensory integration disorder avoid or become distressed at parties and gatherings? Whether it is a party, family gathering, or school social event, the stimulation that these situations provide can be much too unsettling for children with sensory issues. A child may actually go into what's called a panic response of "fight or flight," where his nervous system reacts as if he is in actual danger when what's really happening is that the noise, lights, and movement are so intense for him that they are triggering this primitive survival response. The sound of a group of several children singing in unison may make him feel to him as if someone is attacking his ears. He may perceive all the visual stimulation of colored lights, party decorations, and people milling about as an all-out assault on his nervous system. So how can you help a child with sensory issues to have fun without removing him from the situation completely? Accommodations and a plan for helping the child cope with the stress of special events are necessary.
First, help the child to understand exactly what will happen at the party or gathering and in what order. You might write a social story, that is, a simple story of what the child will experience from the beginning of the party to the end, with photographs or illustrations, to help her feel a sense of control over what will happen. You might simply talk to your child about the order of events and what she might do in stressful situations, such as if the music seems too loud or she is frightened by the large number of children moving about in the room.
When planning events, remember that children with sensory issues need a quiet, safe, low-stimulation environment to retreat to when they begin to feel their anxiety rising. If the child is becoming stressed out, accompany him to a quiet, dimly lit room nearby-a cloakroom, a bedroom, or even an unoccupied bathroom. Offer opportunities for comforting and focusing stimulation. Your child might need to sit and rock, listen to calming music on a personal music player, lie on a couch or sit in a chair as you gently press pillows against him, or lie on the floor as you roll an exercise ball over him or press pillows against him gently. Oral comforts such as a lollipop, chewing gum, or other chewable item may help the child regroup and, in time, return to the event. Earplugs can help reduce some of the noise, and activities that allow him to hyperfocus may make the "hoopla" less distressing to his nervous system. Calming activities can be done before, during, and afterwards, as needed. Then too, ask your child to help you identify what would make him feel more comfortable.
You might give your sensory child a pile of Legos or blocks, or allow her to play with a toy on her own off to the side of the main activity area, if that's what she needs in order to be a part of the group. Don't assume she doesn't like the other guests just because avoids participating in the activities the other kids are enjoying. She may be better off socializing in a more low-key atmosphere with a minimal number of children and a focused activity such as a craft project, a baking project, or a card game or board game. Frankly, she may not be ready yet to attend a party with all the cousins, or the kids at the day care center without frequent breaks. As she develops ways to accommodate her sensory issues and you and others work with her to develop her ability to tolerate stimulating environments, she'll be better able to handle a variety of sensory situations.
It may be that your child with sensory issues can't handle the activity at all and, for safety reasons, needs to be escorted home. Be prepared to "rescue" your sensory child at preschool, late at night at a slumber party, or during a family gathering. You might want to ask a close friend or a relative to be available to take her in or watch your other children should you realize your sensory child cannot handle the situation. If you talk to your sensory child beforehand and let her know what her coping strategies and options are, however, you may be able to ease her anxiety enough that she will push herself to tolerate the unusually high amount of stressful stimulation. Encourage her to let you know her limits and be as flexible as you can-or let it go this time and simply plan an alternative celebration she can handle.
Nancy Peske is an author and editor and the parent of a child who at age 2 was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays. Coauthor of the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, available from Penguin Books, Nancy offers information and support on her blog and website at http://www.sensorysmartparent.com and sends out a newsletter of practical tips available at http:www.sensorysmartnews.com Nancy has been active in the sensory processing disorder community since 2002.